It’s Sunday morning, Pastor. Ten minutes before the start of your worship gathering.
You see your nursery director talking with your wife. Not difficult to figure out what they’re talking about. As soon as your wife grabs her Bible out of her seat, catches your attention with a knowing smile, and heads out of the room, you know what’s going on.
It’s a holiday weekend in your church. And one of your nursery volunteers didn’t show up. Simple mistake. She forgot she would be out of town for the holiday.
And in a pinch, your nursery director found someone she knew would not say ‘no’ when asked to fill-in at the last minute. So for what seems like the umpteenth holiday weekend in a row, your wife is in the nursery.
That story resonates because most churches struggle to have enough of the right kind of volunteers in their church. What kind of volunteers are those?
For the church I help lead, we’ve identified four qualities of a great volunteer:
- A great volunteer is self-aware. They contribute their best to the greater good.
- A great volunteer is responsible. They take ownership of their work.
- A great volunteer is committed to getting things done. They show initiative and take action.
- A great volunteer is resilient. They show up even when life is hard.
Several years ago, we made a commitment to do more for our volunteers than they could do for us. We were no longer content just to ask people to help; we made a commitment to help them. That commitment evolved into a development plan that I have shared with over 100 churches through my work as a coach and consultant.
If you have more than enough of the right kind of leaders who feel cared for and invested in, then I’m not sure I’ll tell you anything you don’t already know. But if you don’t have enough of the right kind of leaders, then check this out.
The ABC Framework for Developing Volunteers
A healthy and mature development system ensures that volunteers are recruited, trained and evaluated so that each volunteer flourishes in their particular area of service. To help you build a system that is both simple and sustainable, here is the ABC Framework that I use with clients:
Volunteers need to be recruited without resorting to guilt. This can be done through a simple placement process:
- Consistent opportunities for people who want to help. Give people a clear and obvious way to ask for more information about serving.
- Occasional requests for help. Several times a year, create a campaign where you ask people to volunteer for particular roles.
- Personal invitation. Encourage team leaders to invite people to fill particular roles on their team.
Volunteers need to get off to a good start. In some circles, this is referred to as ‘on-boarding’; the idea is to make a short-term investment at the beginning of someone’s service to minimize the stress and uncertainty of taking on new responsibilities. Some of the components of a helpful Build In process include:
- Walkthrough with a team leader. After someone agrees to the role, sit down and talk through a basic description of the work and your plan for their development.
- Observation period. Rather than tossing someone into the proverbial deep end of the pool, invite volunteers to watch before they work. Sit in on a team meeting, observe a Sunday in the nursery, etc.
- No-Fault escape clause. Sometimes a person volunteers for a role and discovers they’re not a good fit for the work. Sometimes you’ll realize that a volunteer isn’t a good fit for the work. Either way, make it easy to end the partnership quickly and quietly.
Volunteers need to feel like a person and not a number. With all the work we have to do, it’s easy to forget that actual people are doing the work. You can help people feel like they matter through small but significant investments of time, including:
- Check-ins. It’s not hard to send a volunteer a text asking ‘how are you?’ or ‘how can I pray for you?’
- One-on-One Conversations. Intentionally ask a volunteer, ‘how are you?’ and ‘how can I help you?’ Depending on the size of your team, this can take place over coffee, a meal, or even in the hall before or after someone serves on a Sunday.
Volunteers need clear opportunities to improve. This part of the ABC Framework is what most people think of when they refer to training; however, it is just one aspect of the Training phase, along with Build In and Connect. The overarching idea is that if you want to do a great job developing volunteers, you must help them get started (Build In), feel like they matter (Connect) and get better at their work (Develop).
Most churches try to do too much in the Develop process. What I’ve discovered in working with churches ranging from church plants to megachurches is that the best way to help volunteers get better is to offer:
- Consistent on-the-job help. People look for solutions or ways to improve when they fail or encounter problems. No amount of up-front or theoretical training can prepare someone for the roadblocks experienced in every volunteer position. Use the Connect process (‘How can I help you?’) to discover where and how you can train volunteers in the places they need help the most.
- Occasional training. There are certain skills, convictions and ways to do work that you want to pass on to a volunteer team or your entire volunteer population. The two practices that I find work best are limiting these to no more than four times a year and using a platform like Trained Up to deliver your training content without asking volunteers to show up for a training event.
Encourage and Evaluate
Volunteers need to know that they are doing a good job. Most churches don’t take the time to let volunteers know that they are appreciated, and fewer create simple ways to evaluate the work that volunteers are doing. Here are three things you can do to be different than most churches:
- Host a volunteer appreciation event. Again, keep this simple and make it something that can be pulled off year after year. Food, fun, small tokens of appreciation, words of gratitude - let people know that you are grateful for their work.
- Hand-written notes. Every volunteer should routinely receive a hand-written note from a pastor, team leader or someone who benefits from their service. Create a template for what to write and make it easy for people to express their gratitude in words.
- A simple evaluation. Evaluations are snapshots of someone’s work as a volunteer. Because you have a lot of volunteers, this needs to stay simple. At least once a year, make sure each volunteer has a conversation in which they hear at least one thing they do uncommonly well and one area where improvement is needed.
Do The Next Right Thing
Put this ABC Framework into motion by starting small. Too many churches try to do too much, too soon and overwhelm both volunteers and team leaders. If you’re just getting started, I encourage you to create just one development option for each part of the ABC Framework:
- Attract - Volunteer pushes (2-3 times a year)
- Build In - Walkthrough (job description and development plan)
- Connect - Check-in (how are you?)
- Develop - Annual Volunteer Training Event
- Encourage and Equip - Handwritten notes
Your volunteer development system can and should be part of a church-wide development system called a leadership pipeline. To help you start work on a pipeline for your church, I’ve created a FREE resource entitled, “What Is A Leadership Pipeline.” When you’re done working through it, you’ll discover the three things you need to build the pipeline your church needs, and I’ll give you an action plan to get started.